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Firefox 15 offers fewer leaks, more frags

Improved WebGL support for in-browser 3D gaming

Another month, another Firefox update. But although Mozilla's breakneck release pace can be bewildering for some users, new Firefox versions continue to bring performance, stability, and security improvements – and in the case of the newly released Firefox 15, some nice goodies for gamers.

"Although its roots have been around for some time, Mozilla’s focus on games is a relatively new initiative," said Mozilla's Marin Best in a blog post on Tuesday. "We are focused on making Firefox the best game development platform possible."

To that end, Firefox 15 brings a number of improvements to the browser's support for WebGL, the open standard for 3D on the web. In particular, the new release adds support for compressed textures, which make better use of graphics card memory, allowing developers to use higher-resolution textures in their games.

Firefox 15 also adds support for new high-resolution timing APIs, which Mozilla says give developers control over their interactive content down to the thousandths of milliseconds.

The result of these efforts is that it is now becoming possible to run advanced 3D games entirely within a Firefox browser window, using only HTML, WebGL, and JavaScript.

To prove it, Mozilla developers have created a demo first-person shooter game, code named BananaBread, that puts the new features through their paces. BananaBread is based on the Cube 2: Sauerbraten 3D gaming engine, which was ported to the web platform using the Emscripten C++-to-JavaScript compiler.

"To our amazement, we found that we were able to build a demo that surpassed our highest expectations," Best said, adding that Mozilla is investigating ways to port other languages to JavaScript, including C# and Java. Judge for yourself from the video below, or give the game a whirl.

Best noted that BananaBread isn't designed solely to run in Firefox, and that any browser that implements the appropriate web standards should be able to play the demo. Currently that list is limited to Chrome, but more browsers are expected to become compatible soon.

"One of the main goals of the Mozilla Community working on games is to not only drive game development on Firefox but across all browsers," Best said.

Not everything has been all fun and games since Firefox 14, however. According to Asa Dotzler, Mozilla's Firefox product manager, plugging memory leaks related to browser add-ons was one major focus of the latest release.

"The most common cause of these leaks is when an add-on accidentally holds on to extra copies of a web site in memory after our user has closed the tab," Dotzler said in a blog post explaining the fix. "These pages pile up, and can eat massive amounts of memory for no user benefit."

Dotzler said Firefox 15 can detect when this happens and free up the memory, making Firefox faster and less likely to crash.

Mozilla developers have also improved Firefox's auto-update capability so that it is more seamless and silent than before. According Mozilla hacker Ehsan Akhgari, the new code achieves this by downloading updates in the background, installing them alongside the old version of Firefox, and then applying them with a simple, fast file-copy operation when the user is ready to make the switch.

For web developers, Firefox 15 also introduces a new JavaScript debugger that not only allows coders to analyze locally-running applications, but can also be used over a network to debug JavaScript applications running on Firefox for Android.

"Firefox for desktops has come a long way in a short time. But there is still more to come. We are working on features that will improve performance and make development easier," Best said. ®

Bootnote

Also on Tuesday, Mozilla released Thunderbird 15, the latest version of its desktop email client, in keeping with its usual pattern. That update brings fewer dramatic changes than the Firefox release, however, as Mozilla has stepped away from "continued innovation" in Thunderbird and only plans to deliver bug fixes and security patches from now on.

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